by Dr Steve Kumar
A skeptic is someone who thinks that nothing can be known for sure while an agnostic is someone who thinks nothing can be known about God, or doesn’t know for sure whether there really is a God. It is even suggested that an agnostic is a person who hasn’t had time to become an atheist. Since the rise of secularism the philosophy of agnosticism is escalating. Individuals who reject atheism as arrogant and theism as incoherent turn to agnosticism to nurse their unbelief. Agnosticism is often accepted as a viable belief system and a sensible alternative in the face of modern sophistication.
HISTORY AND ETYMOLOGY
The word agnostic was first coined by Thomas H. Huxley, the grandfather of Aldous Huxley, and it comes from the Greek word “agnoo” which simply means “I do not know.” Huxley did not categorically deny the existence of God but affirmed that we don’t have any knowledge of God, who is beyond the knowledge of man. There may be a God but we can know nothing about him. Thinkers who followed this line of thought in the history of philosophy were Herbert Spencer, David Hume, Auguste Comte, J.S. Mill, Leslie Stephen and Immanuel Kant. The popular agnostic Robert Ingersoll expresses the general sentiment of his fellow agnostics when he declared, “Is there a God? I do not know. Is man immortal? I do not know. One thing I do know and that is that neither hope nor fear, belief nor denial, can change the fact. It is as it is and it will be as it must be. We wait and hope.” The Apostle Paul on his visit to Athens confronted the agnostics who built an altar “To the Unknown God” (Acts 17: 23). Agnosticism is not a modern invention but an ancient illusion.
The philosophy of agnosticism has two main classifications which we may call the “hard-boiled” and the “soft-boiled.” The soft-boiled or the ordinary agnostic believes, “We do not know God.” The hard-boiled agnostic argues that, “God cannot be known”.
THE BASIC ASSUMPTIONS OF AGNOSTICISM
1. Immanuel Kant reasons, “we know not this (God) thing as it is in itself but only know its appearances, namely the way in which our senses are affected by this unknown something.”
2. Since the human mind is limited it cannot think about reality.
3. Nothing can be known or said about God.
4. The wise man will always suspend judgement about matters of ultimate reality.
CRITIQUE OF AGNOSTICISM
First, Agnosticism is self-contradictory and self-defeating for it presupposes some knowledge about God in order to reject all knowledge about God. Christian philosopher Stuart C. Hackett rightly replies to Kant’s position, “If there were no reality, and if I therefore had no knowledge of it whatever, it would never occur to me to deny the possibility of knowing such a reality.”
Agnostics are either stating something real or true about God or they are not saying anything real or true about God. If they are saying something true about God then they are no longer agnostics because they have true knowledge about God. But if they are not saying anything true about God then one should not believe what they say. Someone rightly told Herbert Spencer, the famous agnostic, “You know too much about your unknowable God.” It is for this simple reason that one popular writer insists that most agnostics are atheists; they say we don’t know anything about God but they act as if they had received a divine revelation.” Think for a moment of the aphorism of a mystical agnostic, “He who knows doesn’t speak and he who speaks doesn’t know.” Obviously he has just spoken hence he doesn’t know either. He destroyed his own assumption by his own criterion. In a similar vein the Greek philosopher Gorges spoke too soon, “There are no true statements,” then realized that he had just made one.
Sometime ago when the press published the evidence of medical research connecting smoking with lung cancer, one smoker was so annoyed by the finding that he cancelled his newspaper subscription. He had made up his mind and did not want to believe the facts. Agnosticism is not a neutral option but a definite denial of the evidence of God. It is not a conclusion one arrives at after observing the evidence but an a priori philosophical presupposition about God. The agnostic in essence insists, “I have made up my mind don’t confuse me with the evidence.”
Second, the agnostic position is either meaningless or self-destructive. How could one assert that there are no universal and ultimate truths about God yet at the same time maintain that this position is universally and ultimately true. The agnostic is not in a rational position to deny any knowledge of the existence of God. Given the agnostic’s finite and limited perspective it is logically meaningless for agnostics to categorically deny the possibility of knowing God. The former agnostic John Warwick Montgomery rightly charges the agnostics for failing to see their irrationality. Agnosticism, states Montgomery, “is tantamount to traditional atheism, and suffers from its basic fallacy: it presumes that one can (apart from any revelation of God, to be sure!) know the universe so well that one can assert the nonexistence of God or the non-existence of compelling evidence for his existence. But such comprehensive knowledge of the universe would require either (a) revelation, which is excluded on principle, or (b) divine powers of observation on the part of the atheist or hard boiled agnostic. In the latter case, atheism and the extreme agnostic position becomes self defeating, since the unbeliever perforce creates a god by deifying himself.” Philosopher Elton Trueblood points out, “We cannot know that nothing can be known unless we already know everything.” Arguing on the same promise the brilliant Christian philosopher Gordon H. Clark notes, “for if the object were quite unknowable, one could not know either that it existed or that it was unknowable.”
Third, if nothing can be said about reality and no truth can be affirmed of God, then agnosticism which speaks about reality (that reality is unknowable) is not true. The affirmation that no one can know anything about God is both an affirmation and a denial. If no one can know then the agnostic cannot know either. In which case he cannot say no one can know. How does the agnostic know that he cannot know? He merely substitutes one absolute (God’s truth) for another absolute (his subjective feeling that God is unknowable). If God is totally unknowable how did we arrive at this position? The Harvard philosopher William E. Hocking correctly observes, “When the agnostic says that we cannot know anything about the reality beyond nature or experience, he implies that there is such a reality.”
Finally, agnostics do not actually suspend judgement on matters of reality. Their judgement is in the negative and they live as though God does not exist. Consider Montgomery’s valuable analogy: If an agnostic receives a report that a bomb is about to go off in two hours in the room where he is presently seated, he will not ignore message. Because of the value of life and the seriousness of the circumstances he would not sit there, as Montgomery notes, “in blase indifference (the usual agnostic posture), but would clear the room and engage in a most diligent search of the premises to determine whether concrete evidence supported the claim or not.” If the agnostic is open-minded he will not sit in his chair of agnosticism and subjectively speculate the meaning of life but will seriously consider the evidence of God’s revelation. The Apostle Paul rightly declares that the knowledge of God’s existence is available to man, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse,” Romans 1:20.
A leader may boast of his leadership, a cook may boast of his cooking, but when a man boasts of his humility he is boasting of something he does not have. The same is true of an agnostic. He is so certain about what he does not know. He affirms that nobody can know about God, but says “I know you are wrong.” He knows for sure that no one can be sure of God.